Bill Shorten’s speech at the National Press Club today laid a solid roadmap for a future Labor government. Although the speech covered many policy topics, its main focus was on a narrative which can be short-hand referred to as the ‘Labor’s with you’ story. In many ways it was a clever speech. This is why:
He acknowledged the ‘out-of-touch’ elephant in the room
Shorten acknowledged that the political class, which he quite rightly told the press-club audience included them, is perceived as out-of-touch with voters. It is at this point in a speech when a politician will usually lecture voters about the silliness of this misconception. However, Shorten didn’t do this. Instead, he said that voter distrust, anger and declining loyalty is understandable in a political system which has too many scandals (ping Susan Ley) and when campaign donation laws have meant it has taken 7 months for the public to find out how much Turnbull donated to his own campaign (apparently us punters get this figure tomorrow. My money is on $2 million. Pocket change).
To try to rebuild some trust, Shorten promised to establish another parliamentary inquiry into a national integrity commission and to support Turnbull’s transparency reforms.
Sticking with the theme of ‘Labor’s with you’, Shorten also interestingly promised to keep up his hectic schedule of town-hall meetings as he did throughout 2016, but in 2017, rather than answering questions from the floor, he will be asking the audience for their policy ideas about how to fix things. This might seem like text-book political engagement stuff, but the point is, you can’t fault Shorten’s desire to turn political talk into walk.
Jobs and skills create growth
There are two reasons Shorten’s ‘jobs and skills’ focus is a clever move. The first is that, in a political environment where every person and their dog is claiming Labor doesn’t have a purpose, it doesn’t hurt to remind people what the Labor Party is: the political arm of the Labour Movement. Yes, Labor also has come a long way in recent years in understanding the legitimate political needs and wants of what I call the ‘identity politics’ movement. But it’s impossible to ignore the very real fact that traditional Labor voters, those people who once were rusted to Labor, but now swing dangerously close to either the Liberals (Howard’s battlers) or even One Nation, are the key to Labor’s electoral fortune. To put it bluntly, if you’re a progressive who wants to see your identity politics outcome come about, you have to get on board with Labor’s appeal to traditional working class, suburban voters. And this appeal must be centred on jobs.
The helpful thing about a jobs message is it is not just about jobs. As everyone with a job knows, you can’t segment your jobs away from the rest of your daily existence. And once again, this is where Shorten has been clever. Jobs is also about being qualified for the jobs that are available. This is where Labor’s emphasis on apprenticeships and funding to vocational training became relevant. It also links to his promise to reform the 457 visa system so these visas aren’t used to bring in cheap labour, which reduces job opportunities, undermines wages and conditions and gives no incentive for companies to train Australian workers to do the same jobs. It further links to childcare, all levels of schooling education and of course, Medicare. Because if you’re not healthy enough to work, you don’t have a job. All tied up in a neat narrative bow.
He argued against Liberal ideology without attacking them
It is not true that Shorten didn’t mention the Liberals, he did. But, as if following the rules of George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant framing textbook, Shorten didn’t fall into the usual trap of arguing against Turnbull’s Liberal policies. Instead, he took the smarter path of implying the inappropriateness of Liberal policies by laying out why his alternative plan is not just one of opposition, but of a completely different view of the economy and how jobs are created.
As an example, rather than spending ten minutes explaining why Turnbull’s pet-policy corporate tax cut doesn’t ‘trickle-down’ and is just a ‘gift to overseas investors’, Shorten took the high ground by explaining that the problem with the economy is that wage growth is at historic lows. There’s a reason such an idea resonates with voters. It’s because it is true. It’s now more difficult for Turnbull to now come out tomorrow and say ‘Shorten is wrong: wage growth is not a problem, the amount of tax corporations pay is a problem’. Turnbull can and probably will of course try, but his argument has already been refuted by Shorten who argued, correctly, that it is money in workers’ pockets which creates growth and in turn jobs, and that the government should do whatever possible to increase wages in order to keep the economy driving forward for everyone, not just the executives who benefit from a corporate tax-cut.
And the media struggled to respond
The press-club members struggled to respond to Shorten’s speech for one simple reason. Relating to the point above, Shorten didn’t offer the usual adversarial, oppositional rhetoric that they’re used to copy and pasting into a ‘he said, she said’ electoral two-horse-race narrative which is basically just a lazy prism through which all of them write about politics.
This struggle was most evident in Sabra Lane’s question, when she asked if Shorten was opposing Turnbull’s refugee deal with Trump. Shorten had not, in fact, even implied he was opposed to the deal, and had rather just stated that there was no need for Turnbull to hide away from commenting on Trump’s Muslim ban out of fear of destroying the asylum seeker resettlement deal, as Trump had already confirmed the deal would go ahead. It was almost as if Lane wanted to put words in Shorten’s mouth to conjure a policy dispute for a headline, when such a headline would, in reality, completely misrepresent Shorten’s entire speech.
Without having read commentary on the speech, since this commentary is no doubt being written as I type, I can already predict that Shorten will be framed as having crafted his rhetoric in reaction to Trump’s electoral victory, ensuring the same rust-belt result doesn’t undo Labor at the next election. Again, templated journalism will be at play here which frames politicians’ only motive in life as finding a popular electoral angle, and never, low and behold to, for example, do something about low wages in order to improve economic conditions for the entire country. If someone writes anything from a different perspective, please be sure to include it in the comments below, because I would love to be pleasantly surprised.
I was, however, pleasantly surprised by Bill Shorten today. His speech, and his off-cuff questions showed how much work Labor has done on refining their policy agenda to address the real concerns of voters. I look forward to this Labor agenda continuing its onward march to defeat the Turnbull-fizza at the next election.